Working with your Supervisor

You will either be allocated a supervisor for your project or you will get to choose one based on your research interests. Your supervisor is an expert in research who has been appointed to guide and support your through the process of writing your dissertation. It is important to manage this relationship well and to clarify how you are going to work together, what expectations there are in terms of time and responsibility and how you would like to communicate with each other.

It is important to talk to your supervisor when you first meet about what you both expect from each other. This should include how often you will meet (it is a good idea to schedule in some provisional dates to meet); how many drafts they can look at and how long they need to read your work before they can give you feedback. Be honest about what you are expecting but be prepared to be flexible. It is your research project and ultimately your responsibility but a good supervisory relationship  is worth cherishing as it can give you ideas to explore further in your research, useful feedback on your work so far and motivation and support throughout the process.

Ask your supervisor how they would like you to communicate with them. It might be that dropping in to speak to them is fine but normally supervision meetings would be arranged over email. When you do meet, make sure the meeting is structured so that you get the most from it. A good idea is to have an agenda (even in your head) of what you want to talk about or base your meeting around a piece of work you have submitted. In the first couple of meetings your supervisor will lead the discussion but after that it will be up to you. It is likely that you will have more supervisions at the beginning of you work and that these become less frequent once you are fully engaged in your research and then increase in frequency towards the end of your project as your finalise and write up. With any successful working relationship it is good to be honest about your progress, communicate early on if things are not going well and be flexible and reasonable about what you expect from each other, particularly in terms of time and responsibilities.

Before the meeting
  • Set a time and date for the meeting that is convenient for you both. Some departments set the number of hours you are entitled to meet with your supervisor so try and space these out across the project.  
  • Set an agenda of what you want to talk about and, if possible, email it to your supervisor in advance. It is likely your supervisor will have a number of students they are supervising so it is good to give them a brief summary of where you are in your research in advance of the meeting.  Having the agenda in advance also allows the supervisor to prepare responses to your questions.
  • Prepare some work. It is much easier to discuss your progress in a focused way if you have some evidence to refer to.  This also allows your supervisor to provide more specific feedback and guidance on your work and this will be invaluable in helping you refine and develop your ideas. This could be anything from the results of an experiment to a draft chapter.

During the meeting

  • Take the lead in the discussion – your supervisor should not be doing all the talking! Start by running through the agenda of what you want to talk about and then end by summarising what you have talked about and what you have agreed to do next. Ask questions if you do not understand what your supervisor is saying – it is better to put yourself out there, even if it feels embarrassing, than leave feeling confused.
  • Approach the meeting with a positive frame of mind. Even if you are in a period where you have lost some of your motivation, the meetings will be more productive if you are open and receptive.
  • Make notes of what you have discussed and what you have agreed to do.  You can either do this in the session or just after but it is easy to forget what you talked about if you leave it too long.

After the meeting

  • Agree another meeting date and an action plan of what you aim to have done before that meeting.  Even better, email it to your supervisor. That way, you have an extra motivation to get it done!
  • Take feedback forward. Spend some time reflecting on what you discussed in the supervision and which points you are going to work on immediately and which will take more time.  There will be some points of feedback that you can deal with easily e.g. ‘you should read X’ and others which do not have an easy answer e.g. ‘you need to think more conceptually about X’.

Your relationship with your tutor is a human interaction and sometimes, we do not get on well with each other! This can be just a temporary misunderstanding or it could, in rare occasions, lead to a breakdown of communication.

Although it might seem difficult, the best thing to do is to talk to your supervisor about this. It could be that what you interpret as a lack of communication is their assumption that you are working happily on your own and this can be easily resolved by talking it through. If this really doesn’t work, approach another lecturer in the department such as your personal tutor or a course leader and ask their advice. Always be professional in how you discuss the problems you are having.

Remember also that your supervisor is not the only source of support for your research. Subject librarians can be useful in directing you to research sources, for example and forming a peer study group can be a useful way to share frustrations, excitements and discoveries with each other.

University of Reading guide to working with your Supervisor

Palgrave Skills4Study advice on working with your Supervisor